Remembering World War II

An annual lunch took place last month to mark the anniversary of one veteran’s heart-pounding story.

By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

For several years, it has been an annual tradition for former Malibu resident Al Buckner to share World War II stories with fellow veterans on the anniversary of the date a B-17 aircraft he co-piloted was shot down over the English Channel. The tradition began in 1994 when Buckner marked the golden anniversary of the Feb. 13, 1944 incident by sharing his memories with his wife, Betty, his friend Jerry Jackson and his wife, Carol.

Last month, Buckner, a former Malibu resident, met with Jackson, who lives in Malibu and is an Air Force veteran who was stationed at Okinawa in 1958 and 1959, and four other local World War II veterans at a restaurant in Camarillo to mark the 61st anniversary of Buckner’s amazing and thrilling story.

With assistance from his friends who have heard the exciting details so many times they know it by heart, Buckner recalled the events of that day back in 1944. He and his crew were left on a life raft in the middle of the English Channel, after their plane had been shot down. About two hours later, an English World War I seaplane, called a Walrus, arrived to rescue them. It landed on the water, and a rope was thrown toward Buckner. He grabbed hold of the rope, and then the aircraft moved with the rope attached, with Buckner hanging on for dear life at the other end, porpoising through the water.

Eventually Buckner let go of the rope for fear he would drown. He was left alone in the water while wearing his heavy uniform. Buckner attempted to tread water while dealing with a malfunctioning life vest. A person usually can survive for only about 20 minutes in that water, before the bitter cold of the English Channel becomes too much. Soon, the Walrus returned to the water, landing about 10 feet from Buckner.

Buckner attempted to swim toward the aircraft, but since it had stopped downwind of him, the wind would carry the Walrus a little further from him every stroke he took. Finally, the aircraft’s engines were restarted, it came back around, and a rope was once again thrown to Buckner. He grabbed it and then was pulled out of the water.

Buckner would later learn that the crew on the Walrus was conducting its first ever rescue attempt. When he told the story on the 59th anniversary, Buckner said, “I was the guinea pig, and he (the pilot) made every mistake that a guy could possibly make.”

Harry J. Franson, who spent his time in the Pacific Theater as an army infantryman, recalled the tasks he was assigned as his infantry moved from island to island, with the Allies slowly destroying the Japanese Empire.

On one island, Franson was the assistant commander of a platoon assigned to protect a tank that was supposed to move in on a hill occupied by the Japanese. While this frontal assault was to take place, the soldiers had to be cautious about being attacked from behind by Japanese soldiers who were set up in tunnels in surrounding hills.

“They could shoot at you from the rear because they had tunnels with machine guns set up and all they had to do was pull a string,” Franson said.

As the mission began, the tank commander started shooting at a banana grove, hitting fellow Allied troops. Franson said, “I called him everything under the sun.”

The tank commander then stopped his fire, but refused to continue moving because the heavy vegetation made it nearly impossible to see much in front of him.

Franson said they then found a gully that led to the top of the hill. He led the platoon to the top, which was being fired upon by Allied battle ships. Once he and the other troops reached the top, Franson, as ordered by his superior, waved a flashlight to signal he and his men were there. The battleships were then supposed to cease firing. But, Franson said, they did not respond to his signal.

“You can imagine what it was like when these shells are going over your heard,” Franson said.

Two days later, Franson and his troops made an assault on the side of the hill, and the Japanese withdrew, completing the mission. Franson said he and his men were given the opportunity to look at the hill they had finally conquered.

Malibu residents Vince Cortazzo and Russell Philbrick also shared their stories of being in the Navy in the Pacific Theater. Cortazzo, who served as a radio operator, said it was unbelievable to see the Japanese Kamikazes purposely crash into Allied ships and carriers. He saw the damage that incurred around him from the Kamikazes. He said he felt lucky the suicide planes never hit a target that would have affected him.

“I’m just lucky, it was crazy.” Cortazzo said.

Former Air Force Staff Sgt. John Katuzney shared his memories of his two years spent in a German prisoner of war camp in Austria. While there, he volunteered at a hospital. But he also did his work to harass the German guards and to smuggle items for his fellow prisoners.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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